Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined, as always, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MJ: Brrrrrrr. That’s all I really have to say tonight. Brrrrrr.
MICHELLE: People are saying “Brrrrrr” even down here! I am also adding my chorus of personal grumbles because I hate wearing bulky clothes, but that is really not relevant to this column, is it?
MJ: I guess not. Though for the record, I *love* wearing bulky clothes. :D
MICHELLE: I have this one coat that is so pooftacular that no strap will stay on one’s shoulder. It’s supremely frustrating!
Anyway, on with the program! This is my third and final week of Del Rey appreciation/mourning, and this week I am turning my attention to a couple of recent shounen releases. The first is the twelfth volume of Fairy Tail, a fantasy adventure series about which I have some pretty mixed feelings.
The main characters of Fairy Tail are members of a wizard guild by the same name, and undertake various jobs for monetary reward. Over the course of the series several wizards have formed a team, including Natsu, an insanely powerful “dragon slayer” with fire-based magic; Gray, a wizard with ice powers; Lucy, who wears insanely skimpy outfits and can call celestial beings to do her bidding; and Erza, an extremely powerful wizard with the ability to equip herself with all manner of armor and swords. Erza has always been somewhat of a mystery, and a story arc began in volume ten to tell the story of her childhood, culminating in a final battle here in volume twelve.
I wish I could say that I like the result, but I am unable to resist comparing it to the Water Seven arc in One Piece which I’ve been reading recently. Both stories feature a crew of sorts with one powerful, more mature female character that generally keeps to herself. She is in trouble, and though she attempts to undertake an act of self-sacrifice to protect her friends, they refuse to allow her to do so. Aside from these similarities, the differences between the two are profound. Characterization runs a hell of a lot deeper in One Piece, for one thing, and the world-building is much more imaginative. Emotional scenes in One Piece feel earned and can leave one a pile of sniveling goo. There is no chance of that happening in Fairy Tail.
Part of the problem, I think, is that mangaka Hiro Mashima admits that he’s making things up as he goes along, whereas Eiichiro Oda is notorious for having planned large quantities of One Piece well in advance. The result is a story that feels slapdash—this particular volume includes a clumsy retcon to explain why Erza did not recognize that a person in her present looks exactly like someone from her past. Also, even though Oda’s work is full of buxom ladies, they generally wear a lot more clothes than the females in Fairy Tail, and when they get into fights their opponents do not immediately target their bodices with the aim of getting a look at their boobs.
I know, I know, I’m supposed to be celebrating Del Rey here, but I can’t help but be rather disappointing in the execution of a story that could have been so much more.
MJ: Making things up as he goes along??? This is perhaps unfair of me, but I really have difficulty respecting that kind of process. How can you build anything meaningful into the story if you aren’t actually, you know, telling a story? I’m sure some people can pull it off, and sometimes things like that can start out okay, but in the end… they just turn into Twin Peaks.
MICHELLE: Yeah, I much prefer series where it’s evident that the mangaka has a clear goal in sight. In Mashima’s defense, he also says that he didn’t expect the series to go on for so long, so perhaps its longevity has outlasted his original ideas. I’ll still keep reading it, but it’s definitely something I check out from the library rather than purchase.
What’ve you got for us this week?
MJ: I read a whole stack of manga in a hurry this weekend, in order to prepare myself for my gift guide, including a couple of series that are simply too much a matter of taste for me to recommend them as gifts, despite the fact that I enjoyed them both quite a lot. Coincidentally, they are both also from non-Japanese artists, though they are both published in Japan.
The first of these is March Story, written by Korean manhwa-ga Hyung Min Kim and Kyung Il Yang. It’s a supernatural horror manga about a character named March who is among the Ciste Vihad–supernaturally gifted warriors who hunt and exorcise nasty demons known as “Ill.” The Ill hide themselves in beautiful objects with the purpose of tempting humans into allowing themselves to be possessed. Once invited into a human consciousness, the Ill turn their hosts into murderous beasts.
Though beautifully drawn from the very start, the series begins in a fairly clichéd and tedious fashion. March travels around, observing the foolish vanity of humans, occasionally warning them against the evils of the Ill, and ultimately being forced to save them from their own greedy mistakes. Even the gorgeous artwork is not enough to shine up this tired trope.
Fortunately it doesn’t have to, because just as you’re about to give up on the dull melodrama of it all, the creators start to really dig into the their protagonist’s origin story, which is definitely more interesting than most.
As I mentioned, the artwork is quite stunning, in a sort of creepy Lewis Carroll/Arthur Rackham-ish kind of way, which at first feels fairly shallow alongside such empty content. By the end, however, it all comes together beautifully, and to great effect. It was enough, honestly, that by the time I finished the volume, I’d forgotten that I ever thought it was lame at all, and in the span of about thirty minutes, that’s no small feat. As it is, I can’t wait to get ahold of the next volume to see where the series goes. I suspect things are going to get even creepier, to which I certainly have no objection.
MICHELLE: I meant to tell you I enjoyed your gift guide!
I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed March Story, because most of what I’ve read about it so far hasn’t been very enthusiastic. I’d be interested to learn more about the publishing history of this title, and why it ended up being published in Japan and not Korea. I don’t suppose there are any notes to that effect included in VIZ’s packaging.
I’m fairly certain that both the writer and the artist live in Japan and have for some time. The artist, at least, also works on a manga called Defense Devil, which is currently running in Weekly Shonen Sunday. I suspect this manga was conceived entirely between its creators and their editor in Japan, so I doubt there was ever any possibility of it being put out by a Korean publisher. Probably, their stories aren’t that much different than that of the second artist I’ll be discussing tonight, or really any artist who has journeyed to Japan with hopes of breaking into the industry there.
MICHELLE: That all sounds plausible.
MJ: I’m happy to have enjoyed March Story, too. It was David Welsh’s review that inspired me to really give it a chance, and I’m glad that I did. I’m looking forward to more.
So what’s next for you on this chilly evening?
MICHELLE: My second pick is the second volume of of Akimine Kamijyo’s C0de:Breaker. In the first volume—which has one of the most awesome opening scenes I’ve seen in a long time, I must note—we are introduced to Ogami, wielder of deadly flame and member of an organization “that punishes the evil the law fails to punish,” and Sakura, a strong-minded girl who is determined not to let Ogami go around killing people.
Volume two builds upon this dynamic, with Sakura testing out her idealistic approach on one of Ogami’s would-be victims, with dissatisfying results. Still, she’s convinced by random acts of kindness that Ogami still possesses a human heart, and pledges not to give up on getting through to him. The addition of Toki, another Code:Breaker with the ability to push Ogami’s buttons in a major way, interferes in some respect, but also brings to light some tantalizing hints about Ogami’s past, including the possibility that he committed patricide.
There are a few things about C0de:Breaker that I’m not too keen on. In order to keep Ogami sympathetic, for example, all of the villains are incredibly over the top, like the corrupt politician who harvests organs from unwilling donors and sells them to wealthy clients. Suddenly, too, Sakura is repeatedly the victim of boob groping. Is a real shame to see her objectified in this way because she’s otherwise such a strong heroine.
On the positive side, the story is really interesting and I’ll be truly saddened if Kodansha doesn’t continue the series. I am also loving the injection of cute provided by Puppy, the offspring of the dog whose violent demise you warned me of in volume one. I’m really glad to see that the horrific incident wasn’t simply forgotten and that taking care of Puppy is important to both Ogami and Sakura in the wake of what happened to his mother.
MJ: Aaaaah, the story’s shounen roots finally begin to show. The boob groping is especially unfortunate. I’m glad to hear that Puppy is so charming, though. I haven’t read this volume, but I really enjoyed the first, as you know, so I’m glad that there’s still enough of what made that volume compelling to balance some of the less desirable elements.
MICHELLE: Oh, definitely. The first volume is tighter and better-paced, but it seems that—unlike Hiro Mashima—Kamijyo knows where he wants his story to go, so there’s definitely a good bit of forward momentum here.
MJ: That’s always a plus.
MICHELLE: Forsooth! So, who’s this other foreigner making good in Japan? I bet I can hazard a guess!
MJ: My second book from a non-Japanese creator this week is the third (and, unfortunately, final) volume of Peepo Choo, from American manga artist Felipe Smith. Again, this is a series that is not quite appropriate for inclusion in a gift guide, but it’s one that I’ve grown to like more and more with each new volume.
There are two main storylines going on in Peepo Choo. First is the story of Milton, a young otaku from Chicago who adores a rather surreal anime series called, “Peepo Choo,” and who dreams of visiting Japan, where everyone shares his passion for the series and its message of happiness and goodwill. Second, is that of Morimoto, a Yakuza upstart who idolizes the members of a fictional Chicago street gang whose exploits he’s followed by way of imported films.
Milton wins a trip to Japan, and it isn’t long before he discovers the heart-wrenching truth. Not only are otaku nearly as much of a minority in Japan as they are over here, but almost no one has ever heard of Peepo Choo, which was a major flop in its home country (and a super-cheap license for the American publisher who imported it over).
Milton’s heartbreak is substantial, but he does make some real friends on his overseas journey, most notably a Japanese gravure model who is in as much need of an identity breakthrough as poor Milton. Meanwhile, Morimoto crosses paths with Milton’s traveling companion, Jody, whom he mistakes for a fellow “gangsta,” and eagerly welcomes him into his circle.
Though the first volume didn’t quite hold together, the second was strong enough to compel me to jump right on this one pretty much the moment it arrived in my mailbox. And by the end volume, I was honestly heartbroken that the series had been canceled. Smith is able to wrap up a couple of his major plot arcs (more or less), but there’s so much left unexplored, and these characters really deserve the life Smith gave them. They deserve the chance to live those lives out, fully, on the page for us to see. It’s really a shame.
Everything in Peepo Choo is painfully vivid. Violence, sex, humiliation, joy, sorrow, misunderstanding, and even its humor are so sharp and pointed, it can be difficult to handle at times. That a silent, colorless medium could be capable of creating such extreme sensory overload is something I never would have expected when I first started reading manga. But this extreme sensibility is what really drives Peepo Choo and cements it into the senses of the reader. It’s not pretty by any means, and not even always coherent, at least in its early chapters, but it’s something that compels attention–an attention that, by the end of its third volume, it has definitely more than earned.
This is an incredibly crude and violent manga, so it’s definitely not for everyone (probably including you), but it’s got a lot to say to American manga fans, and I’d recommend it to anyone who can stomach its more vulgar elements.
MICHELLE: Yeah, I admit that I tried to read the first volume and only got a couple of pages in before I realized it was really not my cup of tea. Maybe it’s my British genes acting up, but when something is this raw and unabashed, I just can’t take it. I realize this limits me as a reader, but I can’t shake it.
MJ: I think there are some elements of the third volume, in particular, that you would really like a lot, but it’s hard for me to imagine you actually getting that far. :) There’s some imagery in the first volume–gross-out stuff for the most part–that was tough for me to stomach, and I think I’ve got a higher tolerance than you do to begin with.
MICHELLE: Maybe it needs a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version for Prudes or something!
MJ: I’m trying to imagine the editors at Reader’s Digest even *reading* Peepo Choo and it’s pretty entertaining, let me tell you.
MICHELLE: Oh, dear. I’m sure many palpitations would ensue.